The Magazine

A Girl's Own Story

Coming of age in the polio era.

Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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Warm Springs

Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven

by Susan Richards Shreve

Houghton Mifflin, 224 pp., $24

Body casts, wheelchairs, and a fierce longing to overcome the ravages of a crippling virus are hardly the stuff of a carefree, happy childhood. But they were part of the everyday for Susan Richards Shreve, who made the best of her two-year stay as a patient at Warm Springs--the Georgia sanitarium founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt for the treatment and rehabilitation of "polios." The most famous polio in history, FDR would be moved by what Shreve has to say about the time she spent at his revolutionary hospital.

Shreve contracted polio as a baby in Toledo. She had only residual traces of muscle on the right side of her body, especially in her leg, and was unable to walk after the virus disappeared. Thanks to her attentive mother, who "devised a military regimen of exercises to coax those muscles back to life," Shreve was able to walk again with the aid of braces and crutches. Nevertheless, an orthopedist recommended she go to Warm Springs for surgery.

And so she arrived there in 1950, the summer she turned 11--before the public testing of the Salk vaccine in 1954 would lead to the eventual closing of Warm Springs as a polio hospital. (Today, the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation is a state-run center for victims of stroke, brain, and spinal cord injuries, and severe arthritis.)

Unfortunately, the initial surgery on Shreve's right leg would stunt its growth, leaving it two-and-a-half inches shorter than her left. She also underwent an ankle "stabilization" surgery, muscle transplant, and had her foot broken and re-formed into a straight, flat foot that is still crippled today, but flat enough for walking.

Shreve never considered herself severely handicapped, and credits that to her mother's insistence on physical therapy both before and after her years at Warm Springs. Now a mother and grandmother herself, the 68-year-old Shreve has come a long way: an English professor at George Mason University outside Washington, a former co-chair and president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and the author of 13 published novels. Interestingly, it was one of Shreve's unpublished novels that helped form the basis of Warm Springs: At 18, she wrote Wooden and Wicker, which is loosely based on her experiences at Warm Springs, its title a nod to the old-fashioned wheelchair she rode in as a patient there. (She didn't really need a wheelchair, but in true adolescent fashion, asked for one so she wouldn't be different from the other patients.)

"Were it not for the novel I wrote in the wake of leaving, those two years in Warm Springs might have been simply among the inadvertent losses I have had in my life. But I remember the ward and the feeling of friendship in it, the smell and sound of it, and the faces of those girls," Shreve writes. Wooden and Wicker jogged her memory, and the result is a literary treat: an unforgettable memoir rich with extraordinary detail and a setting that comes to life.

Shreve's memoir provides a brief history of polio and its eventual eradication, considered "the first major public health success in the United States." It touches on Roosevelt's life, his own battle with polio, and his founding of Warm Springs. It is also a snapshot of the racial and social tensions that pervaded the early 1950s. But more than that, it captures the existence of a precocious, imaginative girl. As Shreve writes,

At the heart of Warm Springs was Roosevelt's deep belief that the rehabilitation of the polios was a social problem with medical considerations rather than a medical problem first. The hospital became a community of the handicapped, living and working together to repair their lives in a beautiful setting with bright rooms and good food. It was envisioned as a place where fun was central to daily life, where people could sing and dance and talk and fall in love.

Shreve did all four with gusto. There were Warm Springs "fight songs" to keep up morale, movie nights and big holiday dinners, late-night chats with roommates, and her first love--a half-paralyzed boy named Joey Buckley who dreamed of playing football at the University of Alabama. Good times abounded at Warm Springs, but interspersed among them are candid proclamations of desire--to live as ordinary a life as possible; homesickness; loneliness; and guilt--the latter emotion infusing Shreve's young life more than any other. She feels guilt for not being "as sick" as the other patients (her roommate Caroline is in a body cast) as well as guilt for "always getting sick" and disrupting the lives of her parents and her younger brother:

I was a bad child. That was my perception of myself. I remember reading once about the strange attractor, a star that unsettles the planetary balance, which was the role I seemed to play in our family life. For one, I was always getting sick. And not just a little sick, either, in those days when most of the penicillin had been sent overseas for the soldiers. I was at the center of my parents' world and had every reason to trust their love, but I also knew that my life had stood in the way of theirs. I felt accountable, as if my illness were premeditated. As if I intended to make things difficult, or had too little moral strength to resist.

She missed her parents, especially her loving and glamorous mother who visited as often as she could, and her best friend back in Washington, Harold Ickes. Ickes was her classmate at Sidwell Friends--a private school known for its strong academic curriculum, Quaker values, and willingness to accept handicapped students--and the son of FDR's secretary of the interior; he would, of course, grow up to become Bill Clinton's deputy White House chief of staff. One might think that Shreve, who came of age in the high-powered political nucleus of Washington, is name-dropping here, but she's not: As a child dealing with the effects of polio, she was genuinely enthralled by the fact that her best friend's father was an FDR confidant. Shreve never met Roosevelt but, as she explains, this "was [her] effort to establish a personal connection to Roosevelt." Warm Springs is imbued with an unwavering respect for "Dr. Roosevelt," who set an example with his "drive to excel, a refusal to quit in the face of extraordinary odds, a determination to go forward and never look back, and a lack of evident self-pity"--qualities, she believed, that all patients at Warm Springs shared.

When not alone with her thoughts, Shreve filled each day at Warm Springs with activities and adventures: "As a child growing up in the years of birthday parties and sleepovers and exclusive clubs of girls, I must have come to the self-protective decision that in case I wasn't going to be invited to the party, then I would have the party myself." Shreve was a combination of mischief and maturity, of carelessness and compassion. While half her day at Warm Springs might be spent avoiding tutoring sessions or sneaking into the Boys' Ward to plan wheelchair races with Joey Buckley, the other half was spent trying to be a "good girl"--pleasing the adults in the hospital and adhering to what she called her "Florence Nightingale routine of good works," delivering mail, emptying bed pans, helping the nurses care for sick babies in the Babies' Ward, and converting to Catholicism with the help of the resident priest, Father James.

Shreve is a first-rate storyteller, moving easily from brooding passages to laugh-out-loud accounts of her hospital shenanigans, such as the time she paid a visit to the Boys' Ward wearing her sanitary belt as a necklace. There is also the story of another, more reckless, stunt that would lead to Shreve's dismissal from the hospital.

Shreve also takes time to reflect on her road to becoming a writer, claiming that her decision was made years after she left Warm Springs. But her writer's imagination clearly first took flight at Warm Springs, and partly as a result of the time she had on her hands: "Waiting was a condition of our lives, especially during the weeks after surgery. There was nothing to do. . . . In those long weeks of waiting I had hours of white space to fill. . . . I filled the white space. . . . I had stories and stories and stories as a gift from those months of waiting."

Erin Montgomery is a writer in Washington, D.C.